Evolving Education in Saudi Arabia: A Conversation with Amb James Smith

Published: July 22, 2014

Editor’s Note:

focus-ksa-podcastAmbassador James Smith served as America’s top diplomat in Riyadh from 2009 through 2013, a period where reforms and modernization across society moved more quickly than ever before. Education was one sector where the efforts under the leadership of King Abdullah were most profound during that period. Few Americans were more attentive to the evolution in education underway in the Kingdom than the Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Smith. A year ago he offered his congratulations to the 8,000-plus young men and women graduating from American universities as part of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. He noted, “Saudi leaders have taken a number of important steps to move the Kingdom forward. In my time here, the number of universities and institutions of higher education in the Kingdom has nearly tripled, women now serve as members of the Shoura Council, and rapid development is taking place throughout the country.” A year earlier he gave commencement remarks to all the women graduating from Effat University in Jeddah, telling the class of 2012:

“I offer the congratulations of President Obama and the American people for a job well done. Yours is a tremendous achievement. You live in a fortunate generation. You have been given a tremendous opportunity. First, by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for his deep commitment to women in Saudi Arabia. Second, you represent the product of a life’s vision that began with King Faisal and Queen Effat, and continues to this day under the unceasing efforts of Princess Luluah, and the Faisal and Effat families to ensure women in the Kingdom receive the best education the world can offer. We stand today in the shadow of greatness…and you are the product of that great vision. We should always be mindful of those who went before us and marked the path for the rest of us to follow.”

Smith Ryan SUSTGThis month’s Focus KSA turned to the topic of education in Saudi Arabia and we were fortunate to have Ambassador Smith join us to share his insights and perspectives on this important topic. Here we have the transcript from the education segment of our conversation. Given the press of critical regional developments we also talked with Ambassador Smith about the crises roiling the Middle East and current issues in the Kingdom. That segment is provided in a separate post. You can also find videos and audios from the Focus KSA conversation with Ambassador Smith in our archive and at the links provided below.

We thank Ambassador Smith for taking time to address these issues and thank our Focus KSA audience for participating in the Webinar. You can access all of the Focus KSA materials in our archive and keep up to date with future Focus KSA schedules at www.SUSRIS.com/FocusKSA.


Evolving Education in Saudi Arabia: A Conversation with Amb James Smith

[SUSRIS] Good day, I’m Patrick Ryan, your host for Focus KSA. Welcome to our regular monthly session. Focus KSA is sponsored by the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group and SUSRIS.com, the Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service. Thanks for joining us today.


Click for video of our Focus KSA with Ambassador Smith.


We have a very special program on education in Saudi Arabia and to address that topic and many others we have with us Ambassador James Smith. He’s a senior counselor at the Cohen Group, and the former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and a retired General Officer from the U.S. Air Force. We’re pleased to have him join us from sunny New Hampshire. He bested us today with the environment, and I’m joining you from Nashville, Tennessee.

We have a great program lined up. Our focus will be on “Evolving Education in Saudi Arabia,” and as we have Ambassador Smith with us we’ll also touch upon many of the other topics of the day that I’m sure people are interested in his insights and perspectives.

Just a reminder Focus KSA is brought to you by SUSRIS.com and SUSTG — SUSTG.org. You can find more information about our past presentations, what we have on the schedule coming up, and archives of previous Focus KSA sessions by going to SUSRIS.com, that’s SUSRIS.com/FocusKSA.

Let’s jump right in and introduce Ambassador Smith. He’s going to provide remarks on the topic of education in Saudi Arabia from his perspective, which was four years as the U.S. Ambassador and America’s top diplomat in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Good morning Ambassador, thanks for joining us.

[Ambassador James B. Smith] Good morning, Pat. It’s good to be with you.

Well, the topic is education in Saudi Arabia – is it making the grade? – and as is the case with most everything in Saudi Arabia it’s a complicated answer.

We were supposed to have Dr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail with us this morning, and unfortunately she was not able to make the web conference. But if you’re going to look at education in Saudi Arabia you actually have to start with Dr. Haifa, Princess Loulwa, and the other leadership at Effat University and see what they’ve done over these last few generations.

In 1965 the literacy rate of women in Saudi Arabia was five percent. It was King Faisal and Princess Effat that made a commitment to women’s education. Effat University is a child of that effort, and today you’re looking at near one hundred percent literacy rate. Sixty-five percent of the college students are women.

People Effat University Students Academics TeachersDr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail, President Effat University

All of this has been done since I was in high school. So if you’re going to grade that generation of women like Dr. Haifa who are the path finders in education and medicine and other fields for a young generation of women, all of whom highly educated, then you’ve got to give them an A+. They’ve met this challenge head on, and with the support of the Royal Family, and of course the Faisals are behind Effat, Faisal University, and a lot of the education initiatives in the Kingdom.

I had the pleasure at the end of May to go to the graduation ceremony for Saudi students here in the United States. It was down at the Gaylord (National Harbor) in south of Washington. About 10,000 Saudi students graduated this year and we had about 3,000 of them at that graduation ceremony. It was an amazing event full of energy, positive young people, parents that were there proud of what their children, their students had accomplished. It was a seminal event for me to witness just how positive this effort has become.

SACM Saudi Students Graduation KASP 2014 Gaylord

In conjunction with the graduation we also had a job fair where you had a combination of Saudi companies and U.S. companies that were competing for these very talented students that are graduating from U.S. universities. And it brings to mind the explosion of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. In 2009 we had about 18,000 Saudi students in the United States. 2002, after 9/11, that had gone down to 3,000. So it had ramped up to 18,000, and now we have well over 80,000 Saudi students studying here in the United States. That in and of itself is a success story.

What many people do not understand is the unique nature of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program because it is a merit-based program and was developed that way. So it’s not populated by students whose parents have influence, it’s populated by students that have grades. So in the process of issuing visas we would find students from all over the country, not just the major urban areas, but students who had excelled in school, and then in a merit-based program they were awarded scholarships in the King Abdullah Scholarship Program.

SACM Saudi Students Graduation KASP 2014 Gaylord

So a very, very important program as you look at the transition in the region over these last three to four years. About 150,000 Saudi students studying overseas – 83,000 thousand or so in the United States. That’s just one part of the higher education program though because they have gone from eight to about 32 universities over the last generation.

So you have this explosion of new universities in Saudi Arabia. You have a group of old established universities like King Abdulaziz in Jeddah, King Faisal, King Saud. KFUPM has a long tradition in the oil and gas business. King Khaled down in Abha. These universities are all growing but then you’ve got the explosion of new universities. We had a chance to visit these new universities in Ha’il, Sakakah, and Arar. Kasim is expanding quite a bit. Jizan.

The biggest one of these new universities is of course Prince Nora in Riyadh where you now have 40,000 Saudi women studying in a university that did not exist in 2009.


The challenge for Saudi Arabia is that — while you’ve got to acknowledge the commitment to that infrastructure — the easy part is building the building. The challenging part is what’s behind the walls. On this you have to say that the expansion and commitment to education really is in an infant stage. While you have the facilities being created, the curriculum, all of those things that you need to have a world-class education are still developing.

The good news is that a large number of these students studying in the United States and other countries are earmarked to come back to these universities as professors. So the potential is there. It’s going to take a while for all of this to evolve and for them to build a world-class higher education system.

K-12 is a real challenge in the Kingdom but it’s more complicated than what most people understand. The fact that in Saudi Arabia you have a bridge year between high school and college is a testament to the fact that the K-12 is not providing the kind of education that is required to enter university and to be successful at the university level. The curriculum is English, Arabic, math, and science.


The real challenge inside the K-12 is you have a system that is focused on rote learning and a culture of obedience. It’s not a system that encourages young people to challenge what they’re being taught. The curriculum focuses on science and technology but you’re not going to find any courses in comparative philosophy, comparative religion or courses in world history outside of Saudi history or Islamic history.

We know a very talented young woman who got her law degree in England and she was back here visiting some months ago. And she was sharing a story that she was in London and she was in a conversation where somebody was talking about World War II. As she listened to the conversation she said, well there must’ve been a World War I. But she had no idea what it was. It’s simply not taught in their system.

Now this too is complicated because in traveling around the country we would meet with a lot of American teachers who were teaching English at these universities, and they provided a different view of the education system. It begs the question if the K-12 system is so bad, why do Saudi students do so well when they come to university over here? Less than seven percent of Saudi students go home without a degree. That is a remarkable number, especially compared to the number of American students that don’t finish.

What they explained is that because of the system of rote learning, Saudi students default to learning something in depth. So if you can get them interested in something they default to learning it in detail.

So they come to the United States and they’re exposed to critical thinking, but when they come to university they default to, again, learning in depth, so they actually do pretty well. Compared to American students – and this is not a binary conversation, I’m talking in extremes – but you could say that American students do survey learning and then challenge everything. Saudi students learn in depth and challenge nothing.

SACM Saudi Students Graduation KASP 2014 Gaylord

The truth is in between somewhere, but again if you can get a Saudi student energized and passionate about something their default is to really learn in depth. So the system creates students who will excel. The real issue, the dilemma here is the issue of critical thinking, and everybody knows this.

If Saudi Arabia is going to compete in a global economy it’s got to encourage critical thinking in the education system. If they’re going to have a responsive bureaucracy they’ve got to be willing to challenge existing processes, which means encouraging critical thinking.

The centerpiece to all of this is the transition in the region. I would argue that before Tahir Square the operative word was control, that governments in the region would control where people go, control the media, control what people think. You can’t control anymore because of the advent of the iPhone, the Blackberry where people now have access to global information, information is ubiquitous. So we’ve moved very quickly from an era of control to one of influence. And the Saudi government made that transition in the spring of 2011 in a very sophisticated way, and has shown an ability to be responsive to what their population was asking. The question for Saudi Arabia – and I can’t give them a grade other than incomplete on this – is will Saudi Arabia harness the intellectual capacity of this young generation or will they default to trying to control it?

On this we’re going to have to wait and see, but if Saudi Arabia is to become a world economic power it is going to have to harness that energy, which means a move toward critical thinking and accepting that critical thinking as part of their modernization process.

Now Pat, I know that this session was focused on education not politics in the region, but I don’t think you can discuss the education system without examining the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were allowed into the Kingdom in the sixties and seventies. The influence that they have had on the education system – this gave rise to the Salafist movement which continues to fight modernization every step of the way.

Now clearly there’s a cleansing going on. It’s most visible in Egypt. In the Emirates it’s been going on for some years. Now Saudi Arabia has focused on the Muslim Brotherhood declaring it a terrorist organization. The real issue will be will there be a cleansing of the Muslim Brotherhood influence which has a separate agenda than the traditional conservative Nejdi tradition.

For those who have traveled in Saudi Arabia you know that the culture in Abha in the sixties to mid-seventies was very open and colorful. The culture you see today is not a traditional Saudi culture. And this is the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over time and it will be interesting to see if they’re able to do a cleansing inside the Kingdom from this influence and then move forward.

I will close by saying that there is hope in this because of the appointment of Khaled al Faisal as the Minister of Education. I don’t know that there is a more distinguished man in Saudi Arabia. He was the Governor of Asir for nearly three decades. He was the Governor of Mecca for these past years before his appointment as the Minister of Education. And if there is anybody alive in Saudi Arabia who can affect the change in the K-12 education it will be him, and we’re all pinning our hopes on his success.

[SUSRIS] Yes indeed, and that was a very interesting development in the leadership changes in the recent times. You talked about critical thinking as being one area, and you indentified some specific subject matters in the K-12 curriculum that were absent, and it’s a concise readout of where we are.

What’s your sense of the direction under the new minister? Are they taking onboard the critiques that are provided? And I’m sure there’s self-examination of what needs to be done to modernize the education. Are the appropriate authorities moving forward in the right direction?

[Smith] Well I think so. Faisal bin Abdullah worked very, very hard at this, and I think he took it the first step. And they had a program in place – Education 2022 – which was a modernization effort of the K-12 curriculum.

They changed the curriculum from 21 courses I think, and six of those were religion, and they’ve consolidated – and of course the problem is you have 21 courses, if the first six are religion, guess which gets taught first. They redid the curriculum. I think seven key course areas, only one of those is religion.

So there was a move in that direction. There is a move toward project management, bringing talent from around the world to help advise on how to do this. A lot of people don’t realize that all of the textbooks are done by American publishers – Houghton-Mifflin and others.

So there certainly has been a move in modernization. The curriculum of course is science, technology, and that they do very well.

We met the dean of the political science department at Abdulaziz University. She doesn’t have any students in the women section because they don’t actually teach political science, but if they do she will be the dean of the university. So the challenge of course is a very conservative community gained a foothold in the education system and this is what they’re wrestling with. How do you modernize a country, encourage young people to challenge the status quo when all of your culture has said you’ve got to control all that? And this is the transition that’s going on.

[SUSRIS] We have a question from the audience and I was going to hold off and roll into questions from the audience after a few more questions from the moderator, but George Debakey asks a couple of questions. One is the role of Tatweer these days. I’ll mention to our audience that we sought representatives to talk specifically about that but they weren’t able to make this FocusKSA.

Tatweer is the education holding company in Saudi Arabia. Do you have any comments on where that fits into the curriculum development and standardization and execution of the Kingdom’s goals in the area of education?

[Smith] Well Tatweer was established as a process of excellence in education. We might call them charter schools that are models for how they would transform the rest of the education system, and Tatweer was designed to create standards of excellence. You see now a proliferation of science fairs and competitions where students very publically are showing success and creativity and innovation. I don’t know where that rests right now. It was one of the major innovations that Faisal bin Abdullah initiated. I suspect that Prince Khaled will take that to the next level. So that will be the centerpiece of education and excellence.

[SUSRIS] Let me ask one question – you talked about higher education and the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which is really a remarkable investment in the future of the Kingdom – the tens of thousands of students enrolled each year and studying for the most part in the United States but also in the United Kingdom and other destinations around the world. We also have seen in recent years the introduction of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, KAUST, which is a graduate level experience, but all of these new universities and scholarship programs are exposing young Saudi men and women to cultures and societies and thinking that might have, heretofore, not have been among the experiences and cultural traditions that they have been, used to. Can you comment at all about the influence of modernized education on the traditions and culture and social development in the Kingdom?

[Smith] That generation of Saudis that came to university in the Sixties and Seventies, they live very comfortably in different cultures. Saudis I think are unique. They are very much chameleons in that they can be comfortable in Newport Beach but also comfortable in Riyadh.

What I’ve found, and it’s unfair to start mentioning names, but you look at the Alirezas, the Zamils, Khaled al Turki, Mohammed al Jasser. These are the people that both publicly and privately are behind a commitment to the success of the Kingdom over the long-term. These are the guys that push the government to modernize. These are the people that are behind the Saudi Arabian monetary policy, behind the fiscal policy, and are really pushing the Kingdom to become great.

Again, they do this publicly as Dr. Jasser did at SAMA. They do it privately as the Zamils and others do working with disadvantaged people in the Kingdom. What I find from them is not so much that they’re trying to become Western, but they have reached out and understood different cultures enough to know how to transform their own country in a way to be competitive.

In this sense they’re very committed to the future of their own country. And they’re not trying to make it like America, but they do know that to be successful over the long-term and to have a country 200 years from now they have got to be competitive in a global economy.

So that’s the effect that I see them having. So when I look at this new generation I would predict something similar. It’s not an issue of them trying to adapt our culture, it’s an issue of them making Saudi Arabia more competitive over the long-term.

But then this begs a real question, Pat, which is what do you do with the education?

I’m a great advocate of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. I think it’s perhaps the most forward thinking initiative in the Kingdom. The only thing that’s even remotely close to the investment was the G.I. Bill here in the United States after World War II. And if you look at the success of that this took a generation of soldiers and they either took a stipend and bought their farm or bought a business or they went to university.

They were behind the explosion of our economic development in the fifties and then the sixties. Behind that was the G.I. Bill. The potential is there for Saudi Arabia to do the same thing, but they’ve got to take advantage of this, and this is where the idea of critical thinking comes in.

I think KAUST right now is going to be an interesting model to look at to see if they’re able to capitalize on it. A huge investment in KAUST. I visited many times. I have an admiration for the investment, for the physical plant, for the commitment to hiring global experts in all areas. But there’s a fence around it, and the average Saudi has no idea what’s going on inside because of the criticism of the conservative community about KAUST, which is really a byproduct of gender integration in graduate school, which is what all their students do when they go overseas, by the way. And, oh by the way, even in Saudi Arabia the medical education is all gender integrated. But because of that they built a fence around KAUST and it’s isolated.

So they’re not taking advantage of the commitment to KAUST because nobody understands it. You’re hearing more and more from other Saudi educators why the investment in this castle over there when we have all these other needs at “our universities.”

KAUST should be a model for what their aspiring to – a graduate level university that focuses on science and technology, a MIT triangle if you will, where you’re bringing in IP from all sorts of other companies, you’re doing joint research, and then you’re spinning that research off on your own intellectual property to create new business, really the MIT triangle. It’s very difficult for that triangle to be successful if it’s isolated from the rest of the country. So now the question is are you going to be open to critical thinking? Are you going to be open to these new ideas? Are you going to take advantage of that immense investment? And right now we don’t know.

[SUSRIS] Well, I’ll mention to our viewers that two months ago in our regular Focus KSA webinar we talked about the issue of labor and the question of the utilization of graduates from the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, and Saudi domestic universities, and places like KAUST was on the table. So I’d refer people to take a look at that webinar which is in the archives at SUSRIS.com/FocusKSA.

We had a distinguished panel which included Mr. Amr Khashoggi, the economist John Sfakianakis from Riyadh, and Nathan Field from Washington and we examined that issue, and it’s clearly tied to the education question when you produce so many highly qualified and talented graduates from these programs how are they going to fit in, in the labor market. There’s the question of the private/public sector where Saudi graduates seek to find positions, and it seems to be heavily weighted in the public sector as opposed to small and medium enterprises and so forth. So that’s clearly an issue that’s welded with the education program as you pointed out, what to do with the graduates.

Let me remind our audience that you’ve tuned into Focus KSA, which is a Webinar program sponsored by the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group [SUSTG.org] and the SUSRIS.com Project. We hope that you are subscribers to the newsletters of SUSTG, the News Review – probably the best summary every day in your inbox of what’s happening in the region and in Saudi Arabia – as well SUSRIS.com, where we provide you articles, interviews, and other materials to keep you up to date with what’s happening in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

We’re talking today with Ambassador James Smith who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 2009 to 2013. He’s joining us from the sunny climes of New Hampshire, and many of us are envious of the New England summertime.

We have two questions Ambassador that are related. Joyce Partamian asks for your comments on the question of e-learning. She’s curious how e-learning might fit into the evolution in Saudi Arabia, especially for women, and Joyce is connected with the Blackboard enterprise.

We also have a question, George Debakey had a second question. He wanted your comments on the opportunities for business in such areas as e-books, online education, and English language programs. I know you were a vigorous supporter of the business-to-business community. We last spoke at the U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in Los Angeles, and I think no one knows better how to get Americans and Saudi connected in business than you do.

Can you touch on the subjects of e-learning, online education, and business opportunities for American businesspeople in the education sector?

[Smith] Well, there’s a lot of that that’s already going on. I mean, Blackboard is there. It’s being used at – I know several of the universities. I think the Saudi education leadership is wrestling with e-learning in much the same way that we are. On one hand it’s accessible, cost-effective, and you can reach a wider audience. It’s flexible. So there are some real advantages to it.

There are some interesting models evolving, and that’s why people are wrestling with what the right model is. You’ve got a University of Phoenix model, which is all online. You’ve got the University of New Hampshire, which has a very creative model of blending a brick and mortar university with e-learning and the ability to go back and forth. They’ve also established a program, which I would call more training than education. A company will come in and say I need 100 employees that are trained in “these skills.” They’re providing a competency-based education. And the argument that people make is I hire English majors but they can’t write. I’d much rather have somebody that can write than somebody that’s got an English major.

students classroom

So I think what we’re going to have to do with the Saudi education system is kind of figure out what the right mix is. There is an advantage to having a young man in class where you can look into his eye and understand that he’s paying attention. My mother was a teacher for forty years. We understand the value of moving a young man from the back row to the front row – I was there many times myself.

On the other hand, those who are experienced in e-learning will tell you that the one on one connection, even though it’s virtual, between an instructor, a professor and a student is much more focused on online education than it is in a classroom, especially if you’re doing one of these core courses where you have 200 people in an auditorium.

I think the one challenge with e-learning in Saudi Arabia is that they have not yet accepted the value of adult education – that you have K-12, and you have university, and then you go to work. This notion of a 40 year old retooling themselves because they’re doing online education as a mid-career person doesn’t exist yet.

I think the real value in e-learning is going to be in creating that kind of business model, especially as it’s focused on entrepreneurship and business. We look at the opportunities for young women and entrepreneurship is one of those growth areas because if I give a businesswoman a website, a credit card, and the ability to have her products delivered the next day, then she doesn’t have to do physical business with a man across the counter, but what you’ve done is connected her to the global economy.

E-commerce creates opportunities that bypass these cultural arguments. So you’re going to see an explosion on that. It was interesting at the graduation that I spoke about earlier that I went to a class that was presented by a very senior person in the Ministry of Education who gave a presentation on entrepreneurship. They’re encouraging graduates not to go into government.

The comment was made the public sector is unsustainable in its current form. This said by a senior government official. So now they’re encouraging students to start thinking about opening their own business, and being entrepreneurs, and being creative, and taking advantage of the education they got here to create a new economy.

I suspect that e-learning and e-commerce are going to be central to that because it creates an education and business opportunity that again can bypass some of the cultural impediments to be able to do those same things. And there certainly are opportunities for business. I would encourage Joyce and George both to connect with the Foreign Commercial Service at the embassy. Amr Kayani’s group are incredibly effective at connecting American businessmen and businesswomen to Saudi businessmen and businesswomen.

[SUSRIS] I’ll put another plug in here – we just most recently, our last regular session was on Saudi trade and investment, and Mr. Kayani was one of our guests along with Ambassador Ford Fraker, and that one, as well as all the other Focus KSA programs can be found in the archives.

Again, a reminder to our audience this is Focus KSA, the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group and SUSRIS.com. Ambassador, at the opening of your remarks you mentioned Dr. Haifa Jaffa al-Lail, and to our audience who may have signed in at an earlier announcement when she was listed as a panelist, unfortunately she wasn’t able to join us today. But anyone who has any experience at Effat College and now Effat University understands the remarks that you made lauding the performance of that institution, and as well the advancement of women in education in just the past few decades. Any comments? We’re going to segue out of education, but any comments that you’d like to make about the role of education for women in modernizing the position of women in Saudi society?

[Smith] Well I think most people who have focused on Saudi Arabia know the great advances in education. I’ll tell just one story. I was honored to be the commencement speaker at Effat in 2010, which is fairly unusual being a man at a women’s university, or I thought it was unusual. But they invited me because the embassy had worked with them five years before to help set up a curriculum for engineering.

People Effat University Students Academics Teachers

So Effat had the first engineering department for women in Saudi Arabia, and then the first graduating class of women engineers. It was not completely well received because there were fathers that wanted daughters to go into more traditional education, and I happened to meet one of those students here this spring. And I said well how are things going? And she smiled and she said well at first there was just a handful of us. Now women are being pushed into the engineering program because we all got jobs.

[SUSRIS] That can be a difference maker especially among up and coming college graduates.

[Smith] I’ll add one more thing to that, Pat, and I’ve got to give credit to Al Jubeir, Ambassador Jubeir who – both of us committed ourselves to try to start internship programs for Saudi students here in the United States. There’s a broad range of American companies that are doing that. And the idea is you give an internship just like you would an American student between sophomore and junior year, and then between junior and senior year, and if this is somebody you want to hire into your company you hold them over after graduation, give them a three to six month program to learn the company culture and whatnot, and then deploy them back to Saudi Arabia as part of your enterprise, as an entry level manager, engineer — in human resources, whatever.

The idea is if you want to stay there for the rest of your career, that’s fine. If you want to do that three to five years and then come to the States or to Europe or to Asia, we can give you a job in a global company with a lifelong commitment to training and education that goes with that. It’s a value proposition that American companies have that almost nobody else does. And a lot of people are taking advantage of that. Halah Jubeir over at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission is the spearhead for the program here in the United States, and we’re showing great success in that.

[SUSRIS] That answers a question unasked so far from C. Sader who asked about internship opportunities, and I know that you talked about the graduation ceremony at Gaylord, and that was accompanied by a job fair, career fair. There’s been a lot of discussion about the American companies that are doing business, and I think my colleague, Richard Wilson at the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group, has mentioned in our conversation about Saudi trade and investment — he suggested American businesses that wanted a leg up, look at some of these Saudi students here in the states for internships both to get involved in some networking and also to take advantage of their cultural perspectives and insights that an American businessperson wouldn’t have about how things are done in the Kingdom.

So it’s a win-win for both sides – the businesspeople and for the students to get involved in programs of that nature.

On the education topic you had mentioned Princess Nora University, and anybody who’s driven from the airport to downtown Riyadh has seen the spectacular scope of that campus, and as you mentioned it’s got over 40,000 students, it’s one of the ten largest in the world. Have you visited the campus when it was being built and opened? I believe that was largely during your tenure in Riyadh. Did you have any first hand experience there?

[Smith] Yeah, it was open in 2009. I had the chance to visit the university. I was there for the opening. That was the event that King Abdullah used to announce that women were going to be allowed in the Shura Council, that women were going to be allowed to vote and run for office in the next election cycle — 2015. So Princess Nora University got a lot of visibility.

I think it’s facing the same challenges that any university that starts from nothing and now has 40,000 students to deal with. I certainly wish them success. The Rector of the university is exceptionally talented.

The challenges run the gamut of attracting world-class faculty, curriculum development, and all of the issues that any university would face. I think it’s going to be a real positive over the long-term though, because again if you go back a generation none of these women would probably have gone to university. I think you would call it a state school that has access from a broad base of students. Maybe not as elite as King Saud, or Dar al Hekma, or Effat, but these are all women that again a generation ago would not have gone to school.

We talk often about the advantage of or the impact of going abroad for university. Most people miss the reality that if young women at this university are now going to spend five years – a bridge year and four years of school – thrown together with other women, different ideas, each has their own cell phone, iPhone, Blackberry, and it’s a five year emersion in ideas – that is as powerful as the issue of sending students abroad.

[SUSRIS] Terrific. Thank you Ambassador Smith.

Our conversation with Ambassador Smith shifted to current developments in the region and in the Kingdom. Link here for that segment.


Ambassador James B. Smith

People Amb James Smith USSBOF SUSTGAmbassador Smith served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009-2013 following a 28-year career in the United States Air Force and senior executive positions with Raytheon.

As Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he helped to strengthen U.S.-Saudi business relations across all sectors, which resulted in nearly 400 U.S. companies exporting to the Kingdom for the first time and a doubling of non-defense U.S. exports to the Kingdom during his term.

Prior to his appointment, Ambassador Smith had served in a variety of executive positions with Raytheon Company involving corporate strategic planning, aircraft manufacturing, and international business development.

Ambassador Smith served in the U.S. Air Force for 28 years. Trained as a fighter pilot, he logged over 4,000 hours of flight time in F-15s and T-38s. He served around the world in a variety of operational assignments and flew combat missions from Dhahran AB during Operation Desert Storm. He commanded the 94th Fighter Squadron, the 325th Operations Group and the 18th Fighter Wing (Kadena AB, Okinawa). In addition, he served in a variety of staff assignments involving coalition partners, and served as Air Force Chair and Professor of Military Strategy at the National War College. During his final assignment at U.S. Joint Forces Command, he led Millennium Challenge, the largest transformation experiment in history. He was promoted to Brigadier General in October 1998, and retired from the Air Force in 2002.

Ambassador Smith was a distinguished graduate of the U. S. Air Force Academy’s Class of 1974 and received the Richard I. Bong award as the Outstanding Cadet in Military History. He received his M.A. in History from Indiana University in 1975, and is also a distinguished graduate from the Naval War College, the Air Command and Staff College and the National War College.

Source: Cohen Group


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